Archive for the ‘Retro Reviews’ Category

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Retro Review: Endtroducing…..

January 9, 2011

Buy it and stream clips on Amazon

Summary: DJ Shadow (real name: Josh Davis), a quiet, unassuming guy from California’s academic capital, channels his depression and sense of mortality through a gajillion old records, interviews, and film clips to make what would become a cornerstone of alternative hip-hop.

Fun Facts

  • Note: Eliot Wilder’s 33 1/3 entry on Endtroducing….., consisting of a series of conversations Wilder had with Shadow, is a pretty comprehensive look into Shadow’s backstory and creative process. If you’re interested in digging more into the backstory of this album and its creator, I would recommend picking it up.
  • Endtroducing….. is comprised almost entirely of samples from 90 or so different recordings (though only 7 are credited in the liner notes) The only non-sampled elements on the album come from the rappers Gift Of Gab (of Blackalicious) and Lyrics Born (of Latyrx). Both rappers also happen to be members of the Solesides crew, of which DJ Shadow is also a member. Gift of Gab chips in a few raps that Shadow scratches up in “Midnight In A Perfect World.” Lyrics Born (who is also the guy on the right side of the album cover) provides a few spoken word clips on “Untitled” and “Why Hip-Hop Sucks In ’96.”
  • Shadow samples some films as well, including Silent Running, Blade Runner, and Prince of Darkness (that’s where those “Transmissions” on the album come from), as well as the Twin Peaks TV show. It’s kind of interesting given that VHS was still the dominant entertainment medium in 1995. I just wonder what kind of rig had to be set up to extract the sounds. (Thanks to Wikipedia for that info)

Ups

  • In the 33 1/3 book, Shadow tells Wilder about how he suffered from depression over the course of making this album. Suffering can often be a boon for an artist, and Shadow turns it into some ominous, scary chillout music. “Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt” features this deceptively simple blend of piano, basic hip-hop drums, and a chorus combined into what ghosts might listen to in the haunted ruins of office buildings. “Stem/Long Stem,” begins with what sounds like a harp and a few chimes and builds from there. The intermittent double-time rock drums and crazy keyboards are chase scenes in a horror movie. The mellower sections are foreboding like when the last teen is hiding from the killer after one such chase scene.
  • Another inspiration Shadow cites is driving along the highways in California early in the morning when the sun is coming up. The more positive songs have a zen, hazy quality, like when a marijuana user has a moment of clarity on the nature and purpose of the universe and things feel right. “Changeling” best encompasses this feeling by employing elements similar to “Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt,” only with happier-sounding chord progressions and blurrier vocal samples. “Midnight In A Perfect World” reminds me of walking through suburban Chicago or Ann Arbor at night in the winter. Everything is covered in snow, which is reflecting the street lights and making everything feel brighter. Most people are inside because it’s so cold, so it’s very quiet outside. It’s a good time to be reflective.
  • The spoken word bits are the album’s best kept secret. When I hear the stoned lady talking about Xanadu and Darth Vader on “Mutual Slump,” I don’t know whether to laugh at the non-sequitur or get nervous when she suddenly mentions “five feet under.” The intro of “Napalm Brain/Scatter Brain” consists of a lone recording of a redneck-sounding guy inviting someone in for a game of chess. The original source is probably innocuous, but without any music to define it, it feels weird and foreign. The story about getting arrested on parking tickets that pops up about 4:25 into “Stem/Long Stem” comes from a stand-up recording by the late Murray Roman. It may have been funny, but Shadow’s recontextualization turns it into the scariest thing you can hear.
  • One way that DJ Shadow was a pioneer among producers was his use of samples that fell out of the funk/soul/jazz continuum that made up the bulk of the hip-hop producer’s sound pool. Even though artists like Tone Loc and The Beastie Boys sampled rock records long before Shadow began work on Endtroducing….., those were higher profile samples. It’s very doubtful that even the seasoned listener would recognize most of the sounds this album. This album was put together by diving into piles of records no one else wanted. Wilder writes that Shadow’s use of old, forgotten records mostly by people who no longer have careers is like rescuing lost souls from old civilizations. Death pervades this album, but not always in a scary way.

Downs

  • Getting into this album requires patience. It took me a few tries before I really appreciated it beyond the beats. More than half of the songs on the album are more than five minutes long and favor slow, repetitive builds as Shadow adds and removes loops from the mix. Luckily, they are spread out over the album and are mixed with palatable party cuts like “The Number Song,” which feature more conventional DJ scratch moves on top of the ambience.
  • After getting into this album enough to where I ended up listening to it twice in a row, the only song I still don’t care for on the album is the Giorgio Moroder-sampling “Organ Donor.” Now, “Organ Donor” is probably my favorite song by DJ Shadow, only in its full length version that appears on disc 2 of this album’s deluxe version, or on the Shadow singles compilation Preemptive Strike. Shadow essentially makes a kick ass organ solo through creative sequencing and then throws sharp beats and scratches on top of it. On Endtroducing….., it’s cut to 1:55 and never really builds to the point of being interesting. Instead it gets swapped out for a cheesy g-funk keyboard meant to symbolize the conventional g-funk style of mainstream hip-hop on “Why Hip-Hop Sucks In ’96.” Now, Shadow opens both songs with the same sample, and by juxtaposing them together in the track list, he makes a gambit in an attempt to be clever. I just don’t care for it or feel that it ages well.
  • The variety of themes and sounds in the album and within the individual songs makes for great listening on its own, but difficult background music for chilling out or for dancing. This is the kind of record that asks for the listener’s attention, and that may limit its appeal.

Conclusion: Endtroducing….. is considered a key album in both alternative hip-hop and chillout electronic music. The sheer number of samples DJ Shadow creatively combines makes for incredibly dense and rewarding listening. It’s alternately intriguing, inviting, warm, cool, cold, manic, and scary. Getting into it may take a few listens, but I can assure you it gets better every time you crank it up.

 

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Retro Review: Breath From Another

August 15, 2010

Image from Amazon

Summary: Who knew trip-hop could rock? The Canadian singer/songwriter kicks off her recording career with an album that expands on the conventions of what chillout electronic music can sound like.

Fun Facts

  • Like Goldfrapp or Bon Jovi, Esthero is the name of both the singer and the band. Esthero sings, Doc plays the instruments, and both have production credits.
  • The band was a studio creation – Esthero and Doc wrote and performed the music on the album, but their partnership was engineered by Michael McCarty, then president of EMI Publishing Canada.
  • There’s a secret instrumental track (“Anywayz Pt. 2”) buried in the album about 5 minutes after “Swallow Me.”

Ups

  • Esthero’s smooth and smoky singing is beautiful but still has this warm quality to it. Her singing’s warmth makes it more approachable compared to that of Beth Gibbons of Portishead or Shara Nelson of Massive Attack.
  • Doc’s production sticks to the basic trip-hop conventions of hardcore hip-hop rhythm sections with jazz and worldbeat influences but expands on the genre through the frequent use of guitars in singles like “Heaven Sent” and “That Girl.”
  • The string sections are the album’s X-Factor and make the album stand out from other R&B and trip-hop records. They can make a song sound cinematic (“Heaven Sent”) or exotic (“Half A World Away”). The hook on “Country Livin’ (The World I Know)” makes me think of zipping around Monte Carlo in a sports car circa 1967.
  • There are just these other cool touches like the Deliverance sample that opens “Breath From Another”, the neat double-time shuffle drumline on “Lounge,” and how “Superheroes” uses effects processing to tweak an otherwise garden variety bassline into something spacey and dreamy.
  • The combination of the warm soul singing and classy, slightly edgy beats make for a very sexy total package. After the hip-hop of “Breath from Another” and the hard rock of “Heaven Sent,” the remainer of the record is straight-up makeout music.

Downs

  • The album runs out of steam towards the end. “Indigo Boy” plods along at too slow a pace, the sax on “Lounge” borders on Kenny G-esque smooth jazz, and the singing on “Superheroes” is a little flat. Luckily Esthero closes out the album with “Swallow Me” a Chick Corea-sampling electronic number that explains what drives her music – “Music was the lamb that made a lion out of me.”

Conclusion: This is another forgotten relic from the late-90s electronic music boom. Growing up near Detroit at the time, I first heard Esthero through 89X, the local alternative station which was based in Windsor (gotta love those Canadian content laws). I love this album because it’s warm, sexy, exotic, hard, and just a little weird. Unfortunately, this album isn’t available for digital download, but you can still track down copies through online resellers. If you like chillout electronic music, I would recommend checking this out.

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Retro Review: On How Life Is

August 8, 2010

Image from Amazon

Summary: The quirky and controversial Macy Gray makes her hip-hop/soul debut.

Fun Facts

  • Everyone remembers this album for its big single “I Try,” which I still hear come up as occasional background music in big box stores. Though On How Life Is was released in 1999, the single actually debuted in the 1997 rom com Picture Perfect. It also was not the first track from the album to be released as a single. That distinction belongs to the Outkast and Nice & Smooth-sampling “Do Something.”
  • Before her debut album dropped, Macy Gray made her first major-label appearance on the Black Eyed Peas’ debut album Behind The Front.
  • I remember Macy Gray getting popular around the same time the hip-hop/soul movement of artists like Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, The Roots, Musiq Soulchild, Jazzy Jeff (free from the Fresh Prince), and King Britt was making waves in both the mainstream and underground. While a lot of those artists came up through the Philadelphia scene, the Ohio native Gray started making connections while attending USC and working a cashier job in Beverly Hills.

Ups

  • Gray lives up to her album’s title by covering a wide range of topics from self-affirmation (“A Moment To Myself” & “The Letter”) to passionate sex (“Caligula” & “Sex-O-Matic Venus Freak”) to the murder ballad (what?). Yes, “I’ve Committed Murder” is a smoldering tale of Gray saving her lover from a jerk boss by “dealing with” said boss, taking her money, and fleeing to Jamaica with lover in tow. Unlike songs with similar subject matter by, say, Johnny Cash, this ballad has a happy ending. Gray wrote all of the lyrics on the album and the sheer variety really speaks to her talents as a songwriter.
  • Jeremy Ruzumina’s instrumentation is full and lush. The funky rhythm and horn sections really keep the music chugging along. The production also uses cool samples from Outkast (on “Do Something”), DJ Shadow, and Kurtis Blow (both on “A Moment To Myself”). The selective sampling keeps the listener on his/her toes without being gimmicky.
  • Gray and Ruzumina can write an infectious chorus. I can totally picture Gray leading crowds in sing-alongs of “Do Something,” “I Try,” and “I Can’t Wait To Meetchu.”
  • Finally, the unique and soulful aspects of the album come across when delivered through Gray’s signature raspy voice. Gray follows a long line of distinctly-voiced divas including Billie Holiday and Minnie Riperton, and her gravelly alto gives her lyrics character that a cleaner singer would fail to deliver.

Downs

  • However, when I talk to friends about Macy Gray, I am told her voice was a dealbreaker for them (and they often go into bad impressions of her singing “I Try.). I admit that I wasn’t into Gray initially and I found the overplaying of “I Try” on radio and MTV annoying. It took her appearances on Fatboy Slim’s “Demons” and the Black Eyed Peas’ “Request Line” to convince me to give her a serious listen. The bottom line is, if you can’t get past her rasp, I understand your hesitance, because it’s like that for the whole album.
  • A criticism I often have of funk and soul albums is that the constant full power of the lush backing band can have things run together. Luckily producer Andrew Slater keeps the album a tight 45 minutes so it never overstays its welcome. Still, it would have been nice if the music went down a notch every once in a while.

Conclusion: Macy Gray makes a name for herself on On How Life Is through her many distinctive qualities beyond her voice. Her varied, unique lyrics; her solid taste in music, and her rock solid production team and backing band make On How Life Is a deep but filler-free soul album. If the most recent thing you remember about Macy Gray is her appearance on Dancing with the Stars, I recommend you give this record a shot. You may be pleasantly surprised.

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Retro Review: Decksandrumsandrockandroll

August 4, 2010

Image from Amazon

Summary: Two guys from the UK take the then-hot big beat electronic sound into the swanky 60’s and make a hip-hop James Bond score.

Fun Facts

  • Of the five major big beat acts of the late 90s (the others being Fatboy Slim, The Chemical Brothers, The Crystal Method, and Lo-Fidelity All-Stars), the Propellerheads made themselves stand out with their jazzy spy-film sensibilities. I seem to remember that in the late 90s, the swinging 60s aesthetic was hot, given the popularity of the Austin Powers movies and the emergence of rock bands like Lit and Smash Mouth who adopted lounge lizard looks while playing alternative pop music. My point is I’m surprised that this record wasn’t more popular when it first came out. (I know, not a fact)
  • “You may remember me from….”: “Spybreak!,” arguably the album’s most well-known song, features prominently on The Matrix (it’s in the lobby shootout scene). “Bang On!” is on both MTV’s Amp 2 compilation and the soundtrack to Wipeout 64. I first heard of the band on an early IPod commercial featuring “Take California.”
  • Sanguinestyle tipped me off that if you listen closely to “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” you’ll hear morse code. The morse code translates to “O.H.M.S.S.” Very nice little touch there!

Ups

  • So that last point about all those commercial and soundtrack features? Well, the band got those deals for a reason: they have ears for the cinematic, from their use of old film dialogue sound clips to their huge horn section samples. If you bump this in your car, be careful not to get pulled over, because you’ll be doing 90 for most of the album.
  • Do you like James Bond movies? The album really kicks into gear when Shirley “Diamonds Are Forever” Bassey comes in to belt on “History Repeating,” and her voice hasn’t aged in 30 years. The band pushes things even further for the album’s centerpiece, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” an epic 9+ minute remix of the titular film’s theme. It features two big movements and this cool breakdown where the band steps back and lets the original score run untouched for a while before the sick bass and Will White’s crisp drumming kick in again.
  • When you’re not rescuing Laurence Fishburne from evil Agents or stealing nuclear secrets back from SPECTRE, you can kick back with the album’s slower numbers. Both “Bigger?” and “Better?” make for lively lounge music that has more in common with Mr. Scruff than Fatboy Slim.
  • For me, this was also the first big electronic album to feature guest appearances from American rappers. Alternative hip-hop icons De La Soul and The Jungle Brothers pop by for a song a piece (Dreamworks US version only), which lends the album additional critical credibility outside of the 60s appreciation.

Downs

  • The album gets off to a slow start. It’s not that album openers “Take California” and “Velvet Pants” are bad or boring, they just don’t stand out as much when you know the banger-heavy middle and end sections are coming up.
  • Similarly, some more straightforward instrumentals like “Winning Style” rely more on building grooves than having pop-out features or guest vocalists and can feel like letdowns when compared to the album’s many standouts.
  • The 60s appreciation/appropriation may come off as shallow or a gimmick, but really, what band doesn’t have some kind of gimmick.

Conclusion: By fusing their love of old spy movies with classic New York hip-hop, Alex Gifford and Will White made a unique electronic album that could be classy and jazzy without being quiet or restrained. You don’t need to make a big listening investment to appreciate the album’s many neat touches and the music has some great applications. A modern classic if you can find it.

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Retro Review: Playlist: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra

August 3, 2010

Image from Amazon

Summary: The dance rock pioneers get an entry on Sony’s budget best-of compilation series.

Fun Facts

  • The band hails from Birmingham, England, home of Black Sabbath, who got popular just a few years before ELO. Their drummer actually left the band to join Sabbath (props to Wikipedia for the info).
  • This compilation was initially released as “The Essential Electric Light Orchestra,” but was repacked in the cardboard digipak with extra CD content.

Ups

  • In the 1970s, ELO was a band that combined the muscle of what would become classic rock with the big orchestral sound that The Beatles started rocking in the late 1960s. A side effect of that combination was that ELO became one of the first rock bands to also make disco music. This in an age when the integration, musical and otherwise, of the 1960s was splintering into more hardcore factionism (though maybe it was different in the UK).
  • There are some great dance singles here. “Don’t Bring Me Down” features platinum-heavy riffs with solid 4/4 dance drumming. “Shine A Little Love’s” strings and handclaps have the band sounding like Jamiroquai were it not for the “jug-jugga-jug” rhythm guitar in the hook.
  • Overall the music has some nice contour without being epic. “Mr. Blue Sky” is 80% piano-driven McCartney-esque pop-rock, but its final 20% turns to a choral crescendo that makes for a huge contrast. The opposite happens on “Hold On Tight,” which opens with menacing distorted guitar but quickly transforms into an upbeat inspirational rocker I imagine the band performing on a moving truck or bus.
  • Even when they’re not being all maximalist and dance-friendly, ELO can turn out great mellow songs too. “Sweet Talkin’ Woman” is a band geek love song that, were it not for its sincerity, would be on more indie kid mixtapes. On the flipside, “Evil Woman” is your basic mean kiss-off wrapped up in falsettos and acoustic strumming. It’s engaging nonetheless.

Downs

  • The downside to the orchestral maximalism is that sometimes it’s too much, it’s heavy-handed. Songs like “Do Ya” and “Livin’ Thing” just plod along as though all the stuff going on in the song can hide the crummy choruses and thin songwriting.
  • Frontman Jeff Lynne & friends sing in a range of voices that would rival Maria Bamford. They have a tendency to sing in these ultra-falsetto, slightly off-key harmonies alternated with bassy chants that make them sound like Muppets. Couple this with the general hairiness of the band members in their press photos and the effect is exacerbated (I realize this may be an up for some people).
  • I know that it’s trite to knock a best-of for missing songs, but I was kind of disappointed that none of the songs from ELO’s half of the Xanadu soundtrack were featured. That record went platinum and inspired a Tony-nominated broadway revival, so it seems weird that none of the music was featured. Now that’s what I call a roller disco disappointment.

Conclusion: Though American acts like ZZ Top, Electric Six, and N.E.R.D. would continue to fuse rock instrumentation atop dance beats, and countless big indie bands would continue to utilize classical music with quirky arrangements, ELO’s rock/dance/classical discography made them icons in pop music fusion. The compilation itself is cheap, it has a lot of classic rock staples that also mix well in dance sets, and it makes a solid intro to the band. If you buy this best-of, check out Xanadu soundtrack next, and then go from there.

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Retro Review: American Gangster

August 2, 2010

Image from Amazon

Summary: The biggest name in hip-hop, one album into his return from retirement, makes a concept album synthesizing his biography with the Ridley Scott movie.

Fun Facts

  • This is Jay-Z’s only “concept album.” It has a rise-and-fall story that compares the ol’ Goodfellas/Scarface trope with the limited shelf life of the pop musician. Given some of the Kingdom Come reviews, it’s understandable why Mr. Carter would be thinking of his commercial and/or critical mortality.
  • Consequently, it is also Jay-Z’s only album that he is not selling on ITunes (he is selling it on Amazon though). He wants the listener to hear the record from start to finish, just like AC/DC!
  • This is the second Jay-Z album to be released with an acapella version. Remember how many crummy “concept” The Black Album mashup albums came out 6 years ago trying to be Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album? Even I tried my hand at one back in 2005.
  • Finally, the intro features King Driis himself, Idris Elba. At the time, he was best known in the States for his role on The Wire, but he booms over Chris Flame’s atmospherics in his native Hackney accent. Damn he can do a voiceover!

Ups

  • Hate on Diddy and his antics all you want, but the man knows his way around a high profile sample and a cinematic sound. “Pray” stomps with swagger and symphonic pomp and the guitars rage just enough to be badass. “No Hook” feels like a ganglord pontificating over his empire when Jay-Z flows over the slow burn music. Heck, even the Marvin Gaye sample on “American Dreamin’,” enhances the song’s wistful/wishful tone.
  • You can always count on the Neptunes to make some good beats. “I Know” has this peppy bounce to it, and Pharrell’s chorus is nothing if not infectious. Later on, “Blue Magic” features some cool minimal organ backing and some early 90s, 2 Unlimited-esque keyboard stabs and manages to hold the whole thing together.
  • Two words: Just Blaze! Though he chips in only one track, “Ignorant Shit,” the music is some of the catchiest modern disco this side of the Freemasons.
  • Though he has the gall to wrap up his biography with a big-budget crime drama given all of the legitimate money he has earned over his nearly 20 year music career, at least Jay-Z has the humility to end the main part of the album with the gangster’s fall and the rapper’s irrelevance on “Fallin’.” It speaks to his self-awareness.

Downs

  • I fell asleep listening to some parts of the album. “Sweet’s” hazy 70’s ambience and minimal beats had me struggling to stay focused. “Say Hello” runs too slow for its own good. Even Jay-Z sounds like he is yawning his way through the verses on that song.
  • Sometimes the good parts just don’t come together: “Hello Brooklyn 2.0” features a Lil Wayne guest verse and a very, very dirty beat, but unless you’re a native New Yorker, there’s not much to really draw you in lyric-wise.
  • Beanie Sigel’s turn on “Ignorant Shit” is reminder that while Jay-Z is one of the most successful rappers of all time and he helped break both Kanye West and Just Blaze, he has never found a good protégé: Memphis Bleek, Foxy Brown, Tierra Marie, Young Gunz, and yes, Beanie Sigel. Does he make a bad label manager, a guy who picks talent to make himself look better by comparison, or just a guy who wants to give the people he cares about breaks?
  • Finally, the spoken-word outro from Beyonce starts to sound eerily like she’s preaching the church of Hov. Maybe she’s just going all “Jesus Walks,” but I call it like I hear it.

Conclusion: I find it ironic that Jay-Z would think of this record as a conceptual whole when execution-wise it is so hit-and-miss. Maybe if he got one, two producers to do the whole album, or punched up some of the downtempo tracks with DJ Shadow, RJD2, or Eminem, then we’d have a better overall album. Nevertheless, this is good for maybe 8-10 tracks if you’re feeling generous. Good thing you can buy the individual mp3s!

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